Look around and you’ll spot something which has become a virtual version of its former self.
Fitness classes performed at home. A screen full of fellow Zumba or Yoga enthusiasts has become common place. In fact, Nicky signing up for a Pilates class has meant that, 10 months after everybody else, we started to do battle with Zoom! Has it been a success? The jury is out! On week two we managed to work out how to enable the instructor to see Nicky as she contorted herself into the unlikely poses. Week three seems to have slipped by without it being mentioned!
Schooling, of course, is now delivered in multiple ways, and, in my humble opinion, teachers and school staff need bloomin’ medals for the work they’ve done these last ten months or so. Us grown ups too can be schooled via WhatsApp or tested online – Nicky has had dozens of video call piano lessons on her ‘phone and even passed her virtual performance Grade I. That was featured in one of my blogs trying to find the positives from 2020. The rate she’s already progressing, she may well be troubling the scorers for Grade II before you know it.
Job interviews, whole work places even, house viewings, trips to the zoo, literary festivals, so many of us have found, and enjoyed, innovative ways of still experiencing as much of life as possible via the internet.
We’ve already looked at the virtual world of books and book shops, so let’s have a dig into my other hobby and passion, running.
You’d think running was something which really can’t be replicated at home, well that isn’t necessarily so…..
Aside from people running marathons in their gardens, climbing Everest on the stairs or completing half marathons on their balconies, there is an (admittedly expensive) way of replicating running challenges without leaving the building. You’ll need a swanky treadmill and a computer and then you can run in the virtual world of Zwift.
We do have the cycling version here ourselves, as Nicky tries to keep her mileage up. Obviously it’s a bit easier with cycling as you can put your actual bike in a turbo trainer, far less cumbersome, and certainly more portable than a treadmill.
And then there are virtual events. Using apps, links to training programs and websites, smart watches or just good old honesty, we have been able to take part in events with others whilst running alone. As I put together my series of features onrunning events companies, I’ve been learning just what lengths some have gone to in creating virtual challenges.
Running clubs too are hosting virtual relays and time trial challenges. It not only gives members something to focus their training on, but also keeps people communicating in these anxious and sometimes lonely times.
I listen to a podcast, Running Commentary, presented by two stand up comedians, Rob Deering and Paul Tonkinson. Deering went all in and did the Great North Run virtual event and also the London Marathon. These events had the added technical challenge of everybody running at the same time! His reports on the two events were great episodes. Particularly the marathon, a huge achievement at any time, never mind without the usual London crowds or fellow competitors.
I’ve found myself clicking the enter now button for distance and elevation challenges. Mostly, it has to be said, from the quirky and quite excellent Bys Vyken. The Cornish event organiser has created a series of challenges during the pandemic, each with a back story related to the region. I’m currently about a third of the way through their GOAT 2 challenge (and three quarters of the way through Lamps On Lockdown too). The combination of these two virtual events means I’m often out running the local hills during the hours of darkness.
Do I miss doing events in the flesh. Oh my yes. Our road trips with our ‘team mate’ Martin are such adventures. The middle aged banter in the car, some coffee and more giggles waiting for the start are so much part of the experience. Bumping into regular faces at the types of trail events we tend to prefer give them a real community feel. Yes, yes, yes, we miss those days.
I’ve avoided any ‘see how fast you can go’ type of virtual event, but I can see the attraction for those who still enjoy training to better their previous times or win the bragging rights over a running nemesis. I’d rather ignore the watch and just keep enjoying my running on the trails we’re lucky enough to have on our doorstep.
The response of a good friend on Facebook after I shared my review of the beautiful Donal Ryan novel, Strange Flowers. I imagine the last year has seen many people choosing to add Kindle or other e-book downloads to their To-Be-Read collections. Like so many high street businesses, book shops have struggled with months of closed doors over the last year. With readers unable to get to choose books in the flesh, it is hardly surprising that book downloads are so popular.
That’s not the whole story though, Nielson Bookscan, who provide data to the book industry are reporting rises of over 5% in both volume and value of book sales in 2020. Heart warming to think so many are turning to the written word for comfort – however they decide to enjoy it.
Having regularly sacrificed clothes, and much in the way of holiday paraphernalia, in order to take a healthy pile of books on our adventures – without smashing the weight limit in our suitcase – we can certainly see the attraction of a hand held device with a thousand books inside!
Ultimately, it’s just not for us though. Nicky (my beautiful and beautifully bookish lady wife) has dabbled with a Kindle as a sort of ‘reserve’ if she ran out of books. Actually, I owned one too for a while, but I can honestly say I never read a book on it. No, we are suckers for the feel of a book (embossed covers are almost erotic are they not?) Oh, and the smell of a new ink on paper….
On our last pre-pandemic adventure, we took a Megabus to that there London town and visited Foyles on Charring Cross Road. Oh we revelled in the cathedral like sensation of walking through those doors and just drinking in the potential of a billion words or more. It was a pilgrimage of sorts for Nicky. As a young woman, finding her feet in the city, she spent many an hour running her hand along shelf after shelf of magic in the historic book shop.
We enjoyed our time in that amazing paradise of literature so much, we did the same on day two!
Yup. We do like a book shop. And we do like a book. We are both trying hard to replicate it online, but that sensation of choosing a book after randomly pulling it from the shelves is hard to match – being drawn in by the blurb, the cover and the first page of a book by an author unknown to me is one of reading’s great adventures.
I wonder when we might next find ourselves walking through the doors of a bookshop?
Various ‘lockdown’s and restrictions as well as shielding advice and caution has led us to add to our supplies via the internet over the last ten months or so. We try and support actual book shops rather than that well known internet giant with its gazillionaire owner. We’ve ordered from the two most well known stores (Foyles and Waterstones) as well as independent retailers and, in some cases, directly from small publishers.
In fact, I pledged in my 2021 Manifesto to keep supporting the smaller stores and publishers wherever possible. The thrill of opening a parcel of books, the pent up fresh paper aroma as the books are pulled from their wrapping, it’s all part of the joy of reading for us.
There are so many ways to get your reading material. Kindle and other e-readers are a brilliant resource and if that’s your bag, read on my friends. If the purse strings are tight, once we venture out again, there are also some great second hand books stores around. Some even remodelled themselves to keep people supplied during 2020 and even more are adding online and telephone ordering to their menu. I enjoyed a great bundle of second hand nonfiction from The Old Curiosity Bookshop back in the summer and I know they have expanded their online offerings in this lockdown.
Once they are open again, libraries are still a wonderful and free resource in the community. We have really enjoyed getting our grandchildren to immerse themselves in books and discovery. The librarians are very patient and so encouraging with the little ones. Have a search locally, some libraries are doing click’n’collect services during the current lockdown.
An internet friend I’ve made through social media reading and writing groups, Gerard Nugent, has his debut novel published this very week. Sadly for me, who no longer even owns an e-reader, it is currently only available in that form. I will give it plug here and patiently wait for it to materialise in paper and ink.
On a day off work, with our exercise, work and dog walking done, we enquire of each other “are we in?“.
Yes we are!
Gentle music on, dog snuggled on the sofa, books out. Interrupted only by the need to eat.
Our two-people-and-a-dog-book-club goes from strength to strength.
We very often end up enjoying the same books. If we time it right, we simply swap as we both close the cover on our latest reads.
Nicky has recently enjoyed Strange Flowers and was fairly certain I would too. “Quite different and exploring so much.” she described it to me. So, as Nicky got stuck into Deborah Orr’s childhood memoir, Motherwell, I set about Donal Ryan’s latest offering, Strange Flowers.
I recently heard the author, Donal Ryan interviewed on Radio 4’s Books And Authors and found him to be engaging, humble and quietly hilarious.
I wasn’t to be disapointed, it is an exquisite read.
If I wrote human beings even a hundredth as beautifully as Donal Ryan, I’d be a proud scribe. Ryan’s characters aren’t just fully formed, they’re multi-dimensional, you can feel them around you. He places them. I experienced the story from all angles, like being sat amongst the most subtle of surround sound systems, every voice pulls your attention in another direction.
Set in rural Ireland, the story starts in 1973 when Moll, the only child of Paddy and Kit, ups and disappears aged 20. The parents lead a simple life which is devastated with the gradual realisation that Moll may be gone forever, her fate unknown.
The pain suffered in the years after Moll’s disappearance, and the toil of Paddy and Kit’s life is deftly articulated. As they toil on through life, never recovering, one day Moll simply walks back through the door.
Where she has been, why she left, and what and who she brings back into the simple, rural life is a master class in plot and story telling. There’s no dramatic revelation, no big, attention grabbing scenes. The lives of those close to the family, the people Moll has been with while away, and those of the rest of the villagers are gently knitted together as beauty, tragedy and realisations ease into the story.
Donal Ryan, who has twice previously been long listed for The Booker Prize, tells of love in layers. He shows love for some can be delicate, fragile, brittle almost. But he also shows love at strongest, combined with loyalties which can suffocate. The way faith is threaded through the relationships and how religion can both dominate and soothe is also carefully and honestly portrayed.
It is a tale of people. In this small family, and those close to it, Ryan has held a mirror up to us readers and let us deal with our own instincts. The complexities of race, of religion, of status, class and ownership, of sexuality, of coming of age and of bravery and fear are all exposed. His telling of the characters gets the reader under the skin of their exchanges. The man knows people, he knows emotion. The novel oozes emotion on every page.
I found I needed to absorb every single word. to me there isn’t a wasted sentence in the book. It’s early in the year but if there’s going to be better reads than this in 2021, I’m going to be feasting on words. When the book ended, which it does with a gorgeous light touch, I found myself nodding and watery eyed but contented and almost wishing to go straight back to page one and devour it again.
I heartily recommend.
Check out what else I’ve been reading in 2021 and the books I enjoyed in 2020 too. If a book has grabbed me and time allows, I tend to write a few words about it.
Eager and daunted in equal measures, I greedily gathered a couple of copies of A Promised Land when it hit the shelves.
The place in history into which Barack Obama has comfortably nestled meant I had no doubts when passing the second copy to my Dad.
I don’t do politics on the blog, cyber social is choked with opinion as it is. Let’s just say that my father and I are not usually politically aligned. Yup, I think I’ll leave it there. I mean, in some parallel world, Dad might read this blog, as well as the 700+ pages he devoured of Barack Obama’s memoir.
Another favourite political opus I’ve previously lent to my Dad, was Citizen Clem, John Bew’s insightful and compelling biography of the former Prime Minister. I waxed lyrical about Bew’s book in this blog post.
This Promised Land is a historical document for sure, but it is also bang up to date. Obama has his sharp mind tuned in to current events and this comes through the prose as he recounts the build up to his election and first term in office. Even though Obama’s is a very recent history, it has many parallels with the Attlee story. Many will read A Promised Land and long for the days of leadership like this, based on compassion and a (maybe naïve) desire for a more bi-partisan politics. Although, with my Dad and I in agreement about so much in the book, maybe it’s not such a naïve dream!
But, is it any good?
Well. Yes. Yes it is. Obviously that would be down to the individual reader to decide for themselves. But anybody that remotely shares my interest and outlook will definitely enjoy A Promised Land. You will need to have at least a passing interest in recent American and political history of course. And there’s no let up in the detail. You’ll need to enjoy a bit of detail. Oh, and there are over 700 pages. If you get it in hard back, it is bloomin’ heavy too.
Aside from that, it is a cracking read. Obama’s Dreams Of My Father (1995, republished in 2004) confirmed to me that here was an excellent writer. He manages to liven up and put pace into subject areas which could potentially be dry and laborious. His choice of language, the colour he injects and the balance of confidence and humility in his writing draw you in. You want to read on, to find out how each episode during his first term in office worked out.
Financial crisis, wars, terrorism, ecological disasters, devastating weather occurrences arrive in a barrage. Not forgetting of course the never ending saga that is the Middle East. Each is described calmly, yet with enough jeopardy to keep you scanning the words. Obama surrounded himself with the right people for every occasion. His descriptions of the team he put together are so observational, you really feel like you are in the room when the crucial decisions are being thrashed out.
This first volume – yes there will be at least another 700 pages at some future point – ends with the mission to remove Osama Bin Laden and the incredible tensions and risks that surrounded the planning and executing of such a dangerous, high profile mission. That this mission was successful was in some way reward, in my opinion, for the no-stones-unturned, no-expert-ignored approach to Obama’s presidency.
My biggest takeaway from this absorbing read is humility. When decisions lead to events not going as well as hoped, Barack Obama is straight out and holding his hands up. If promises he made can’t be kept, he takes ownership, offers suitable apologies and starts to build trust again. If, in the heat of the moment or via some trick ‘gotcha’ questions from a suspicious press, he offers up a quote which he later regrets, he takes to the stand or the airwaves and addresses the error.
He manages to describe the vile hatred, the abuse, the thinly veiled racism and even the threats to him and his family with an admirable grace and also with an attempt to understand the motivations of others.
I’m sure, on both sides of the Atlantic, there are more than a few who would like a return to the leadership styles of Barack Obama, or indeed Clement Attlee.
It is no secret that Nicky and I love our trips to Cornwall. We’ve tackled some truly amazing events in the county. Mudcrew have hosted much of our fondly remembered Cornish running. It was my great pleasure to catch up with Andrew Ferguson (Ferg) and Jane Stephens who make up ⅔ of the Mudcrew team.
Mudcrew’s Black RAT (32 miles) was the first event I’d ever done in Cornwall. That was back in 2015. My beautiful lady wife had successfully completed the Red RAT (20 miles) in 2014 and absolutely loved it. The RAT (or Roseland August Trail) was also the first ever Mudcrew event, in 2011. That first year saw the 32 and 20 miles versions plus an 11 mile, White RAT.
The RAT festival of trail running has expanded to now include The Plague (the whole of the Black RAT in both directions!). 2019 saw the introduction of BOYD24 (Bring Out Your Dead), 24 hours of repeating the brutal last section of the RAT course. Truly for the lion hearted!
Mudcrew is headed by Ferg, Jane and Andy Trudge. Jane was the last to join the team after co-founder Jo Lake went on to new challenges.
The first RAT was an ambitious undertaking with coach transport for nearly 500 people to three different start locations and 32 miles of coast path to be marked and checked. Ferg was relieved that the first year was such a great success and made the effort that had gone into creating it worthwhile.
“It was a huge learning curve though. I didn’t finish marking the course until 5AM the day of the event, I was exhausted before the day even started.”
There weren’t the number of trail events companies that we are now spoiled with back then. Those that did exist were putting on some epic events, most of which Ferg had taken part in. Yet he felt that there was scope to add a bit more to event day than these early companies were offering.
“Although they were commercial pioneers, we thought the events lacked passion…….. We wanted to put on a party afterwards, with camping, so that everyone could chill and enjoy a social evening together….. The RAT afterparty is now legendary.”
Social media was in its infancy back then and the Mudcrew team were out there using the old school method of handing flyers to runners at other races. At The Grizzly (an epic trail race in East Devon) they tucked 1000 leaflets under car windscreen wipers. As the success of that first RAT proved, Ferg’s belief that they were offering something new and different was lapped up by the trail running community.
Jane was already a fan by the time she joined the team:
“I ran the Black Rat in 2014 and became hooked on off road stuff! MudCrew had been going for a couple of years when I came on board, so I was lucky enough to join an existing company with a great following. Apart from helping out at club level, I was fairly new to the game. My first event as part of the team was the RAT in 2015…… it was amazing, I was so glad I took the plunge.”
Andy, Jane and Ferg have naturally found how their individual strengths help the Mudcrew team work so effectively. Ferg points to Andy’s exceptional organisational skills:
“Andy is quietly behind the scenes doing all the crucial stuff, dealing with permissions, councils, timing and safety, financials, all the real important stuff that I would be terrible at!”
Ferg takes responsibility for the course and crew, plus their social media whilst Jane is, as Ferg explains:
“..super organised, the smiling front face of the company, she lives and breathes Mudcrew and the sport.”
Jane tells me how when it comes to race day, the team effort culminates in the incredible experience us runners are treated to:
“During the event we work very much as a team, doing what needs doing. Ferg tends to stay out on the course and Andy and I look after race HQ. I deal with the finish line and awards etc. “
Mudcrew’s other flagship event is the Arc Of Attrition. A winter 100 ultra marathon, ran entirely on the South West Coast. It is both revered and feared. With good reason. The finish rate is around 50% in a good year! A 50 mile race has been added to the weekend in recent years. Sharing a finish line with the 100 and starting on the stage of the iconic Minack Theatre, it is no ‘baby’ ultra marathon!
The ARC has been digging itself into my brain since I first learned of its existence back in 2015. I even wrote a piece (here) about how I would *never* entertain such a challenge…..
I had a place in the ARC 50 for this year. I was taking it very seriously, I’ve run recees on the whole course and was training hard. Like so many of us, my challenges are on hold, which is obviously frustrating, but health must be our priority. The amount of work Mudcrew put into creating these events means these frustrations must be tenfold for them.
As a competitor I’d been kept informed about the incredible lengths to which Jane and the team had gone in order to make the event Covid safe:
“We had an incredible plan ready for the Arc that was really tricky to get right but the latest lockdown meant it was impossible.”
Both Jane and Ferg say that their favourite memories as race organisers are all about seeing those final runners through the finish line on both the RAT and the ARC. On a personal level, Jane also treasures the moment she got to present her own daughter with a RAT trophy.
Jane and Ferg are proud of the standing and reputation their events have earned in the trail running and ultra marathon communities.
Ferg, as will we learn later, is a fan of the big ultra marathons around the world and is chuffed to link The ARC to that world.
“I’m most proud that the RaidLight Arc 100 is now made it to Western States Qualification status. It was a personal ambition of mine for the race”
Janes ambitions for Mudrew are simply:
“To continue to grow our flagship events and to be a name known everywhere synonymous with great races!”
Ferg agrees, also pointing out that they have plans to extend the scope of their latest event to be announced, The South West Traverse. This will hopefully be the next event they host, if Covid risks and restrictions are sufficiently reduced by then.
As well as celebrating every single finisher in their events, the level of elite athletes who seem to be drawn to Cornwall to take these challenges is also a source of much pride.
Both Jane and Ferg say it can be frustrating when some participants don’t understand the work that goes into their events, sometimes bombarding them with queries when they are at their most busy, in the days immediately before race day. Or indeed afterwards, when they finally allow fatigue to take over:
“One of the busiest times for emails/ questions is immediately after a event when all you want to do/ can do is sleep … we can go 3 nights without sleep (or very little sleep) on the Arc sometimes.”
Mudcrew has quite a large loyal army of volunteers who help make race days so special, the ARC Angels are credited by many runners as the reason they managed to complete the event. Jane too says that their crew are the reason the events are so successful. She also has the support of her husband who, along with her daughter, make each event a genuine family affair. Although she does say “The thing I miss the most is being able to take part!”
In fact, carrying on the family theme, when asked who inspires her most Jane replies:
“My daughter and my close running friends.”
Jane is also grateful to the support Mudcrew have received during the most challenging of years for events organisers:
“It has been an extremely difficult year granted, but I love how supportive the running community has been on the whole. Sometimes difficult decisions have to be made (with cancellations of the RAT and the ARC particularly). It is made a little easier when you get messages supporting our decision.“
Ferg also draws inspiration from local running legends such as Jo Meek and Paul Maskell.
“Definitely Jo Meek , a good friend who has raced at the very highest level seemingly forever. She continues to train like a ninja and is as competitive today as ever … she shows no sign of slowing down or losing her zest for the sport“
“Paul Maskell is a GB 24 hour team runner who manages to mix training with family and a full time air ambulance paramedic job. 24 hour track running is by far and away the hardest discipline in the sport of ultra running, I have crewed enough of them to see how it has broken the very best in the UK.”
Mudcrew haven’t offered any virtual events during this challenging time, letting others fill that gap in our race plans. Ferg doesn’t find himself tempted to get involved but Jane has completed a few in the last year to keep her motivation levels up. She wasn’t able to create a “Lockdown gym” though, as her garage doubled as the Mudcrew store.
Both Jane ane Ferg are clearly motivated runners, as we discover whilst delving into their impressive trail and ultra marathon accomplishments.
Like so many of us of a certain age, they both came to this wonderful sport relatively late. Ferg, around the age of 40, had finished his football career and was looking to fill that void:
“I missed the social aspect and the exercise when I was too old to play anymore. I quickly found out that I was never going to be fast and that I soon got fed up with road marathons. I got into the trail ultra scene in the early days, around 2007. I did the very first Classic Quarter when there were only 18 entrants. I loved it and quickly got addicted to distance trail running.”
Jane seems to be equally addicted, she started her running journey almost 10 years ago and her glittering array of achievements in that time is extraordinary:
“I started running in 2011 and ran my first marathon in 2013. I then ran the Black Rat in 2014 and became hooked on off road stuff!
I have run approximately 75 marathons and ultras to date.”
Amongst this eye watering list of achievements is the 145 mile long Grand Union Canal race, which she rates as her proudest achievement to date. Jane has completed both the 100 and 50 mile versions of Centurion Running’s South Downs Way events saying the 50 is probably her favourite – “I loved the 50 because it was the second half of the 100, but in daylight!”
Ferg enjoys most of the local events, he tends to support them all. I’ve bumped into him at quite a few over the years. He gets frustrated at the lack of passion he finds at some events, but has high praise for some of the South West’s epic trail races:
“The Grizzly, which I’ve done at least 15 times…. As a Race Director I can see what a massive amount of work goes into it, with a mind boggling number of runners. I also really like Bys Vyken events such as the Cousin Jack, I love the passion which David puts in (Bys Vyken RD, see my interview with him here).”
Ferg has also completed the Grand Union Canal Race as well as an ever growing list of epic events from across Europe and beyond. These include such classics as The Spine Race, Leadville 100 and The Golden Ring 100 in Russia.
“I love to combine the sport with travel and have done several other major and low key events in Europe and beyond.”
These adventures are on hold for now. Jane and Ferg both have grand plans for 2021 if health and restrictions allow. Jane has her place in the legendary Marathon des Sables held back from last year, while Ferg has his eye on The Dragon’s Back multi day race in September. Along the way he is hoping to race in Spain and The Azores with further trips to South Africa and Thailand at the end of the year.
One fantastic Mudcrew event neither Jane and Ferg have mentioned is The Scrooge. Sadly the venue is no longer available for this Christmas trail running extravaganza. Many in the trail running community, particularly Nicky and myself, have very fond memories of dressing up in festive costumes and joining Andy, Ferg and Jane for some festive fun in Mevagissey.